Friday 26 May 2023

The Sirens Sing - Kristel Thornell (2022)


Rating: Admirable

The Sirens Sing is a novel in two parts, beginning in the locality of Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, between 1991-93. The second section is set in the 1960s – 1970s, in Sydney’s west. The two sections are connected by two characters, Jan and her son David. David features as a teenager in the first section and in the second section we see Jan’s life as a young adult grappling with growing up during times of generational and political change. The first section is the strongest, with well written relatable teenage characters who are on the cusp of leaving high-school and venturing into the adult world. David and Heather are two awkward teens who don’t really fit in, but they find each other and begin what could be a great friendship and romance. Heather’s friend, the troubled Robbie, is a budding artist. The three enter the orbit of an Italian language teacher, Ada, and by the end things end up going off the rails quite tragically. Thornell evokes a strong sense of place with considerable skill, which adds to the effectiveness of the first section.

Unfortunately, the second section is where things go awry. After genuinely connecting with the characters in the first section we are taken completely away from them and, apart from some hints about what happened after, the reader is left to wonder. Jan, although otherwise nicely fleshed out, is weakened as a character due to Thornell’s tendency to overemphasise her lack of confidence and self-consciousness about her upbringing. Jan gets drawn into a friendship with with a fellow student, Alicia, meeting her at university during an awkward interaction with a snobby male student. Alicia lives with her hippy poet older boyfriend and they have a polyamorous lifestyle. Jan and her partner fit awkwardly into this bohemian world and then, you guessed it, due to a series of events things end up going tragically wrong. There’s plenty of juicy themes throughout the novel – class, relationships, politics and repression, however a few key flaws weaken their effectiveness. The impact of some key scenes are weakened by nebulous descriptions, in particular during the climax of the second section, which needs to be read several times to work out exactly what’s going on. The fact that the two sections are not chronologically linked is unfortunate, as it breaks up the generational links between the characters and their circumstances. Such criticisms were shared by most of the thirty book club members who came to the sessions to discuss The Sirens Sing. They really wanted to rate the novel higher, but were frustrated by its flaws, which tended to overshadow its attributes. I've rated the novel as Admirable, but it came close to a Mediocre rating, saved by the fact that I’ve read novels far more flawed than this contemporary Australian novel.

Saturday 6 May 2023

The Flaming Cow: The Making of Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother - Ron Geesin (2021)


Rating: Excellent

I'm a big fan of Pink Floyd and recently I've been listening to them once again, getting my prog fix in a serious way. I replaced some of my second hand copies of their albums, including Atom Heart Mother (1970). I hadn't listened to it for quite a while, but when I did something special happened, I heard it in a new way that resonated with me deeply. Since then I dug out my Early Years: 1965-72 (2016) box set, which contains many different live and early versions of Atom Heart Mother, some of which are referenced in The Flaming Cow. As Geesin, a Scottish musician and composer, points out, when we talk about Atom Heart Mother we talk about the track itself, which takes up all of the first side of the album it is named after. Geesin was brought in by the band to help them finish and embellish an early bare-bones version and had him write and arrange new parts, which included brass and a choir. In the end there was some unhappiness about the way in which Geesin was credited, which is alluded to by Geesin in this book and also by Nick Mason, who has written a forward, mentioning how he had to contend with the notion that he and his colleagues may have behaved in "...a less than saintly way." In the years after the album was released the band ceased playing Atom Heart Mother and then both Water and Gilmour publicly disparaged the track, referring to it as an artistic low, which is a pity, because it is a unique work with qualities that become apparent the more you listen.

Geesin, back in the day

The Flaming Cow gives you some background of Geesin's life and work, a chronological overview of how the collaboration came about, the making of the track and the aftermath. Geesin's recollections are thorough and detailed, but it is a pity that, apart from Mason's forward, there are no contributions from the other band-members, despite being invited to do so. Therefore everything comes from Geesin's point of view, which is really only part of the story. This means that details about the actual making of the track, before Geesin was invited to contribute, is a bit sketchy. As I read through these sections I couldn't help but wish that Pink Floyd had contributed, but then, to be fair, this is Geesin's story and what an eccentric story it is. Geesin's writing style is witty, erudite and, at times, gnostic. I had to re-read some passages for a second time to make sure I was understanding what he was saying, although most of the rest is clearly written. Geesin is certainly a creative fellow and you can't help but admire his dedication to Atom Heart Mother, both the music and the story. There's also many fine and rare photos, most of which I've never seen before. It seems that, despite Pink Floyd's dismissive attitude, the work has enjoyed a rich afterlife, sought out by performers and listeners alike. After all, it was the band's first number one album and a significant portion of fans would hold it close to their prog-loving bosoms. People who are already fans of the album should seek out The Flaming Cow for its unique perspective from one of its creators, for others its subject matter would be esoteric and obscure, therefore if you are interested listen to the album first and really get to know it. You may or may not love it, depending on your musical bent, but I thoroughly recommend it.

Floyd at work - one of many rare photos